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Reviewed The Inland Sea by Donald Richie




I cannot recall a more insightful or colorful travelogue about Japan (article or book), and it’s 40 years old. Richie seems that rare and perfect in between of both cultures to serve as guide/interpreter to the foreign reader. I wish he had done more.

Reviewed The Inland Sea by Donald Richie.

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Quote from The Inland Sea


I sit and nibble at the stuff, sweet and insipid at the same time, and feel sorry for myself—alone and lonely, miles away from friends, eating shiruko on a wet, dead day, lost somewhere in the wilds of a land that preeminently knows how to make one feel alone. Reluctantly, I eat the last of the red beans—because there seems nothing else to do. The young waitress, plain and neat in a blue skirt and a white apron, has been watching me. Now she approaches, excuses herself, deftly removes the empty bowl, bows, and moves away. Soon she reappears, fills my teacup neatly, brings a new ashtray, removes the used one. She does all of this, as do most Japanese waitresses, decorously, with discretion and with care. Then she disappears and comes back with another bowl of steaming shiruko. She allows herself a smile as she puts it in front of me, turns and says, charmingly, “Okawari desu”—another helping. She had observed me, had perhaps misunderstood my reluctance to finish as a wish to savor. Now she was giving me, free, another helping because I had seemed to like it and because it was theirs. The Japanese concept of service is doing something nice for someone, and doing it as though for its own sake. This girl expects nothing because one need not tip in Japan. Even my future patronage is not to be considered, for the likelihood of my ever returning is very slight, sitting as I am with my belongings, waiting for a boat. And no one obliges her to behave in such a pleasant fashion. She does it because it is the proper way of doing it. And it is. It is the only way to serve and not demean either yourself or your customer.

Found by Brandon Lee in The Inland Sea.

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➟ Graphic Adventures, the Book

Straight from the pages of Wikipedia, compiled and edited by one Philipp Lenssen, this book tells the story of an era most people my age lived through and think back upon with great affection: the early period of computer adventure gaming. Companies like Sierra On-Line, Lucasarts, Microprose, and Adventure Soft defined the boundaries of what we now know of interactive storytelling, plot-driven game design, and narrative/item-based puzzles. It’s on sale at Amazon for $29, and is also available as a free, downloadable HTML file with “loads of screenshots”. YJSoon has a useful tip: run it through Calibre to make an EPUB file, and it’ll sit nicely on your iPad’s iBookshelf.

Link (via @YJSoon)

Author of the Month: William Gibson (June)

 

I read fiction sporadically, in a manner that exhausts all interest in holding another book when I’m done; a holdover from my university days when being asked to read five novels a week wasn’t unreasonable. So sometimes I go for months without, and then at other times like this past week, I bite down hard and can’t let go.

Aside: That last phrase gives me a mental image of Cory Doctorow’s domain name, craphound.com, where you should really go and get his latest book, “For The Win”, as a free download.

I’m currently on my fifth William Gibson, and the third for the week, Idoru. These books have been around for years, and I thought I was all alone in picking them up on a whim, until I saw on Twitter this morning that two other friends are currently rereading Neuromancer. A coincidence is a terrible thing-that-could-be-blogging-fodder to waste, so I decided I would suggest an author each month and maybe some of you would like to read along.

Gibson is a remarkable talent. Some critics find fault with his writing, or the alternating obtuseness and thinness of his plots, or his Japanophilia, but his sense of futurism is unassailable. This is a man who virtually invented the cyberpunk term and genre with Neuromancer… which he wrote on a manual typewriter and reams of paper. His experience with computers at that point was non-existent, yet the book is rife with systems that we can recognize today as variations of the internet, email, websites, search engines, personal handheld computers, and some others like virtual reality that are still far from perfection.

It’s as if he lived as a person displaced in time, to whom the thoughts of a 21st-century man would come without effort or the need for context: earlier, I came across a bit in Idoru where military-like airport security guards randomly stopped a passenger and compared a DNA sample (a strand of hair) against the data stored in her passport. That’s tight airport security, biometric passports, and invasive random searches, foreseen in a book published in 1996. Incredibly prescient work from a man who had just gotten his first email address and modem.

Most of his books are set in a not-too-distant future where pockets of physical ruin and squalor coexist with technologies that would be viewed today as luxurious. Instead, they are survival tools or commonplace opiates: cyberspace worlds into which people escape, conduct their shady businesses, or stumble onto valuable corporate secrets. This is the ground from which heroes spring, to be later oppressed by those who are obscenely rich and sometimes more machine than human. The Keanu Reeves movie, Johnny Mnemonic, was based on a Gibson story and is probably the best example for helping you visualize a typical cyberpunk setting and narrative.

I’ve read one set in the present, Pattern Recognition, and it might be a good place to start if hardcore SF turns you off. I love the hook: the heroine possesses an innate ability to perform what is usually a learned skill. She experiences involuntary reactions to logos and branding, intuiting which ones will perform and which will fail, and as such becomes something of an expensive guru for hire amongst multinational corporations. It’s a trick also seen in Idoru, set in a futuristic Tokyo where nanotech buildings grow like trees, constantly expanding upwards: a major character has the ability to quickly “feel” large amounts of statistical data on a person and understand the emotions and causes behind them. In one scene, he knows when a celebrity has begun to contemplate suicide, and moves to intervene.

The most tangible outcome of having immersed myself in Gibson’s futures all week – places where customized portable computers are a way of life – is something I only understood this evening, when I absentmindedly reached for my iPhone and realized that I no longer thought of it as anything but “my computer”. An object of pure utility, stripped of its brand, operating system, applications, and hardware specifics. Beyond a certain level of usability, there’s a parity between these portable devices and desktop systems. What matters is the network of information they access. This is by no means a new idea, but feeling it, and by extension feeling like a character in an SF story in one unguarded moment, was like an epiphany. There are certain passages I could point to as the seeds for that moment, persuasive little vignettes that idealize the relationships we seek to have with information technology, but this quote I found on Wikipedia demonstrates how Gibson’s philosophy of computing has always followed such a line of thought:

“I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.”

—-

Recommended reading:
Neuromancer
Pattern Recognition


The Bridge Trilogy:
1. Virtual Light
2. Idoru
3. All Tomorrow’s Parties

Since You Asked

I think I do a good impression.

Just wanted to mention a great birthday gift I got today, a signed copy of Cary Tennis’ Since You Asked. Cary is Salon.com’s resident advice columnist, and a damned good one. Certainly the best I’ve ever read. The book is a collection of his responses, which are unfailingly thoughtful, inspiring and human, even when they don’t have any solutions to offer.

Buy the book from Cary’s own site here (he even signed the receipt, adding “Enjoy!”) or from Amazon via the link below.

Some books I have been reading

A Study in Scarlet,
The Sign of the Four,
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:
I wasn’t very much interested in reading any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, apart from the Hound of the Baskervilles, which I read on a whim maybe a year ago and found underwhelming. That story’s constant suggestions that the answers laid in the realm of the supernatural were more irritating than anything, but then I saw the new Guy Ritchie adaptation, which did quite the same thing to entertaining effect, and decided to give the detective another go (imagining him to be Robert Downey Jr. all the while).

A Study in Scarlet is really a prequel to the stories, and a great idea for a first novel – to treat one’s protagonist as an established force, a genius in the imaginary present, and then head backwards in time to tell a story from his earlier days as an earnest student of his craft. The Sign of the Four, I’d advise you to skip. It’s not bad at all, but Sherlock Holmes really belongs in the format of the short story. There is a formula to them, and they do have a bit of a dimestore novel touch, but you can hardly regret reading at least one volume.

Triplanetary:
A great space yarn from the 1930s. This is the reading equivalent of going to a drive-in theatre to watch a science-fiction movie with men in silver suits wielding technology with names such as “ultra waves” and using “ether screens” to deflect attacks. But that movie will surprise you yet with high-budget escapes from flooded alien planets, large-scale space warfare, and the creation of the human race’s most powerful weapon.

The Thirty-Nine Steps:
With all the other trashy fiction already committed, I figured I should throw in a spy novel about an innocent man on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, framed by shadowy figures with a plot to throw the world into chaos. This is real pulp fiction country, where characters cross paths in the most unlikely of places, at the most convenient of times, and you’re expected to take it all in without any movement of the eyebrows. Accept it on its terms, and this is as much fun as watching North by Northwest.

Greenmantle:
A sort of sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps, with John Buchan bringing that novel’s Richard Hannay back into another fine situation where he has to save the world from a German plot, except this time the novel’s twice as long, and he has multiple companions on his journey. Marvel as they separate and reunite many times across Europe through the power of coincidence. I enjoyed this enough, but will be taking a break before I read the remaining three Richard Hannay novels I’ve got.

Botchan (Master Darling):
A good-for-nothing young man with no particular talents, recently graduated, is sent into the Japanese countryside to teach although he has no talent for it. There, he faces political entanglement in the office and defiant opposition from students. Sounds like your typical JET story, except it’s the early 20th century, and this is one of Japan’s most beloved morality tales. Apparently, most Japanese encounter this novel as children, which I think is fantastic as it covers death, eating ramen, and dealing with the bullshit of others.

The Remains of the Day:
English butler goes on road trip in the 1950s, fondly remembers his old employer and some thirty years of service, while on the way to meet an old housekeeper he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Does he love her? Can he still polish silverware? Is the Japanese-born author’s ethnicity visible through the perfect period writing at any time? It’s almost implausible that such subject matter could be woven into the kind of story that resists the insertion of a bookmark, but Ishiguro is an amazing talent and this the best book I’ve read in a long while.